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Remembering Don Keough, Former President Of The Coca-Cola Company

FILE - In this April 23, 1985 file photo, Donald R. Keough, then Coca-Cola Co. President and Chief Operating Officer, toasts New Coke after a presentation at Lincoln Center in New York. Coca-Cola says Keough, who steered the company through the "cola wars" of the 1980s, died Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015 in Atlanta. He was 88. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, File)
FILE - In this April 23, 1985 file photo, Donald R. Keough, then Coca-Cola Co. President and Chief Operating Officer, toasts New Coke after a presentation at Lincoln Center in New York. Coca-Cola says Keough, who steered the company through the "cola wars" of the 1980s, died Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015 in Atlanta. He was 88. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, File)
Credit Marty Lederhandler / Associated Press

They just don’t make them like they used to.

Don Keough’s services attracted an overflowing crowd of admirers – including Warren Buffett, Jack Welch, Roger Goodell, Chicago’s Richard Daley, Sam Nunn, Louis Sullivan and top leaders from around the world.

Why? For many, Keough was the human face of the Coca-Cola Co. – the gate keeper of the formula. No, not the actual recipe, but the subliminal messaging Coke brought to the world: a smile, happiness and world peace. These were all carefully orchestrated images and feelings that Keough – a marketing genius – understood.

And he sprinkled that fairy dust everywhere. We don’t sell Coke, Keough once told me. We sell magic.

Keough’s career also was magical. One of my favorite stories happened 35 years ago when he and Roberto Goizueta were among several executives vying to become CEO of the company. On Valentine’s Day, 1980 at a Manhattan restaurant, Keough told Goizueta: “Nobody knows how this is going to work out. The two of us are quite compatible, and we have different skills. So let’s sleep at night. Whoever comes out on top, let’s put the other one to work immediately.”

Goizueta became CEO, and Keough his president – and the two had one of the most successful executive partnerships in American business.

Even Keough’s biggest mistake, introducing the New Coke, turned into a success by re-igniting a deep devotion to the classic Coca-Cola brand.

While Goizueta was reserved and private, Keough was effusive and public. The unique executive partnership ended when Keough retired in 1993. But his influence at the company was felt until his death.

Keough – always counter-intuitive – wrote a book: “The 10 Commandments for Business Failure.” They included: “Be Inflexible. Isolate Yourself. Don’t Take Time to Think.” 

For Keough those also applied to life. And he embraced life – with a Coke and a smile.WABE Contributor Maria Saporta reflects on the passing of Don Keough, former president of Coca-Cola.

Maria Saporta is editor of Saporta Report and a contributor to “A Closer Look with Rose Scott and Denis O’Hayer” on WABE 90.1.  The views expressed here do not represent the opinions of Public Broadcasting Atlanta, its employees, nor volunteers.